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Khubilai Khan

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Khubilai Khan (1215 – 1294)

Khubilai Khan established the Yuan Dynasty officially in 1271 and served as the Great Khan during the height of Mongol rule and power throughout China. Khan came to power after an intense civil war which pitted him against his relatives (descendents of Ghengis Khan), including his brother Mongke, who as emperor, had commanded his brother Qubilai to lead conquering expeditions in China’s Western frontiers.

Although it took Khan a few years to overthrow the southern Sung dynasty – a vast territorial expanse with more than 50 million people – when he formally declared the beginning of the Yuan Dynasty, he moved the capital from Karakorum (in modern-day Mongolia) to Beijing. Khan, who wanted to be known as the Khan of Khans and ruler of both Mongolia and China, inherited a China ravaged by civil war and in financial ruins.

From there, he led a dynasty characterized by trade and expeditions. Even though the late years of his rule would be marked by a foreboding lack of control of both domestic and foreign properties, foreign nations sent embassies to Khan’s court and even the king of Ceylon sent him presents. Such was the court Marco Polo visited on his trip to Asia. But Khan’s social works projects placed a huge financial burden on his empire. In 1289,Khan finished a 135-mile extension of The Grand Canal, whose maintenance costs paled in comparison to the price of material and wages of nearly 3 million workers it took to build the waterway. Khan’s project now allowed grain and other products to come directly from the Yangtze River to Beijing.

In an attempt to take Mongol expansion to the seas for the first time, Khan launched two large-scale and failed attacks against Japan. The first in 1274 used mostly Korean ships and the second in 1281 dealt a devastating blow to the empire’s sea power when a typhoon destroyed almost the entirety of the fleet. Under Khan, the Mongol empire launched two attacks against Vietnam, but were again badly beaten both times. In 1280, Khan organized China’s first expedition to Tibet to scout out the origins of the Yellow River.

Toward the end of his reign, in 1281, his favorite wife, Chabi, died and five years later, his appointed successor and son followed his mother. Loneliness contributed to Khan’s indulgence in food and alcohol, which led to afflictions of obesity and gout. His tomb has yet to be discovered and no record of an elaborate burial exists.

The grandson of Genghis Khan, the founder of the Mongol Empire, Kublai Khan was the fifth Great Khan of the Mongol Empire (1260-1294) and the founder of the Yuan Dynasty in China. He assumed the title emperor of China, and his conquest of South China’s Song Dynasty was the last step in the Mongols’ efforts to rule China wholly. With that conquest behind him, he became the overlord of all the Mongol dominions (the Golden Horde in southern Russia, the Il-Khanate of Persia and regions inhabited by traditionally nomadic Mongol princes), as well as the ruler of his own territory of China.

Before the time of Genghis Khan, the founder of the Mongol Empire, the Mongols had been a group of semibarbaric nomadic tribes, essentially moving through history unnoticed. Their cultural traditions were primitive, and they had little experience with economic activity save for some organized hunting expeditions and herding. Until a few years before Kublai Khan’s birth, in fact, the Mongols had been illiterate and gave little thought to ideas of statecraft or nation building.

With a few exceptions, such as Kublai Khan himself (known to Mongols as Setsen Khan, or “Wise Khan”), Mongol rulers seem to have viewed power as a personal possession to be exploited for personal gain, never giving thought to extending their influence or creating a wide-reaching empire, and so they never succeeded in organizing a long-lasting state. Adding to this issue was that the Mongols had come to power in China, as they had elsewhere, by brute force, never incorporating political savvy into the equation. (As one of Kublai’s advisers later said to the emperor, “I have heard that one can conquer the empire on horseback, but one cannot govern it on horseback,” an axiom that Kublai Khan absorbed and acted upon as khan.) Predictably, this political incompetence greatly contributed to the relatively rapid collapse of the Mongol Empire.

Early Life and Rise to Power

Kublai Khan was the fourth son of Tulë, by his favorite wife, and the grandson of Genghis Khan (c. 1165-1227), founder of the Mongol Empire. Strong, fearless and intelligent, Kublai Khan accompanied his father into battle as a child. By age 12, he was a skilled horseman, and his reputation as a warrior grew with each passing year. Kublai was 17 when his father died, but he didn’t begin to play an important part in the extension and development of the Mongol Empire until around 1251, when he was in his mid-30s. That year, his brother Mongke became Great Khan of the Mongol Empire, and Kublai was given control over Chinese territories in the eastern part of the empire.

Once holding the reins of the empire, Mngke resolved to complete the conquest of Song China and to subdue Persia. For his part, Kublai was put in charge of expeditions with the goal of unifying China under the new Mongol emperor. Having an appreciation of Chinese thought, he organized a group of Confucian Chinese advisers to introduce reforms in his territories. His stance on the role and structure of government was shaped by the wisdom these advisers imparted. They convinced him of the necessity of interdependence between the ruler and the ruled, reinforcing Kublai’s instinctive tendency toward humanity and generosity of spirit. This approach, the advancement of a philosophy of civilized behavior, was a great departure of thought in the Mongol line from the methods employed by Genghis Khan and Kublai’s contemporaries, where the capture of a city or territory, for instance, was expected to include complete devastation followed by a massacre of the population. It would help Kublai’s rise to power continue beyond the typical initial stages.

In 1257, unhappy with how the war against the Chinese Song Dynasty was progressing, Mongke led an expedition into western China. He was killed by the Chinese defense in August 1259, however, and his younger brother Arigbge immediately made plans to have himself named khan. When Kublai, who was besieging a Chinese city with his army, heard of Arigbge’s plans, he and his associates held an assembly, during which Kublai Khan was unanimously elected khan in succession to Mongke. Ten days later, he announced his succession in an announcement drawn up in classical Chinese. However, because primogeniture was not a recognized principle at the time (Kublai was older), Arigbge had himself declared khan, ignoring Kublai’s pronouncement.

In 1264, Kublai defeated Arigbge in battle; two years later, Arigbge died. However, the disputed nature of Kublai’s reign did not die with Arigbge, as certain family factions would repeatedly lay claim to the throne. Kublai, however, would never relinquish his power, and no effort aimed against him would be successful.
Life Under Kublai Khan

Generally, Kublai's overriding achievement as khan is seen as reestablishing unity within China, a country that had been divided since the end of the Tang Dynasty, which ended in 901 A.D. The major step taken to unify China was the conquest of the Song Dynasty in the south, an accomplishment that took several years.

Kublai may not initially have had intentions of ruling beyond his realm in the north, leaving the Song Dynasty ostensibly in control of South China, but the ill treatment of emissaries he had sent convinced him that the Song must be dealt with conclusively, and military actions commenced in 1267. Nine years later, in 1276, Kublai’s forces captured the Song’s child emperor, but loyalists delayed the dynasty’s inevitable fall until 1279. Anticipating his eventual success, eight years earlier Kublai had given his dynasty a name: Ta Yan, or Great Origin. Kublai’s lasting reign can be in part be attributed to his defeat of the Song, because once the dynasty was toppled and taken into the Mongol fold, Kublai built on its foundations and piggybacked on the advances of this brilliant and progressive civilization.

With all of China finally in Mongol hands, the Mongol sphere of influence had reached its effective limit internally. But Kublai, in an effort to restore China’s regional stature, engaged in a series of costly, misguided and ultimately fruitless wars with peripheral kingdoms.

Armies from such lands as Burma, Indochina and Japan dealt disastrous defeats to the Mongols. The Japanese campaign was particularly catastrophic, as severe weather and the Japanese resistance nearly annihilated Kublai’s forces. Despite the definitive losses in these battles, Kublai was never terribly discouraged, and the campaigns came to an end only when his successor ended them.

Domestically, the khan’s efforts paid off, and transitions went relatively smoothly. With Kublai as their khan, the Mongols adopted divide-and-rule diplomacy, with the Mongols and central Asians living separately from the Chinese; in many ways, life for the Chinese was left unchanged. The unification was especially impressive because Kublai was a barbarian, nomadic conqueror, which means that he overcame both the historical successes (or lack thereof) of his predecessors and a possible problem with perception. But even in official Chinese historiography, Kublai Khan is treated with great respect.

Like previous Mongol rulers, Kublai was preoccupied with religion, and he was well known for his acceptance of different religions and for bestowing certain economic privileges on favored sects. Religious figures were exempted from taxation, and Buddhist temples especially were granted lucrative parcels of land and peasants to maintain them. ??Secularly, the Mongols were the minority group, so they maintained power by dividing the general population into four social classes: the Mongols, the central Asians, the northern Chinese and Koreans, and the southern Chinese. The first two classes, at the top of the power pyramid, enjoyed extensive privileges; the third class held a nearly neutral position; and the southern Chinese, the most numerous and representing those from the toppled Song Dynasty, were essentially barred from state offices and were used as laborers in public works projects and the like. Those in this fourth class became progressively poorer under Kublai, as trade was chiefly carried on in the interests of a privileged, usually foreign, merchant class, not those of the community at large. Also, separate systems of law were upheld for Chinese and for Mongols, so those held down by poverty were equally held down by law. ??Ironically, while the masses suffered in poverty, Kublai is celebrated for his use of paper money. Always the innovators, the Song had previously used paper money, but Kublai’s contribution to its evolution was to make it the sole method of currency exchange. His innovation was born of necessity, because copper was too scarce to form a metal currency in an era of expanding trade, and large quantities were used to make statues and other objects.

Though celebrated as a Chinese emperor, Kublai also helped form the political backbone of his own Mongol people. For instance, the development of the political theory known as the “dual principle,” representing the parity of church and state in political matters, is attributed to Kublai and an adviser. This theory formed the foundation of the constitution of the theocratic monarchy proclaimed some 630 years later, in 1911, when Mongolia gained its independence from China.?

The only personal account of Kublai is by Marco Polo, who became an associate of Kublai’s early in his reign and who was the author of the chief Renaissance source of information on the East. Polo served as an envoy to the East. Under Kublai, the opening of direct contact between China and the West was made possible, as the Mongols controlled central Asian trade routes. In the early 13th century, large numbers of Europeans and central Asians made their way to China, and Kublai met Marco Polo in the 1270s on one such expedition. Polo was such a supporter of Kublai’s that when the dispute arose in the late 1250s between Kublai and his brother Arigbge, Polo intervened, insisting that Kublai was the legitimate heir to the throne.

Kublai Khan, learning from his predecessors’ mistakes, became the longest-ruling khan of the Mongol Empire and was a beloved leader, to both the Mongols and the Chinese, during his lifetime. In his account, Marco Polo presents Kublai as the model of a universal sovereign, but he also presents him with common human weaknesses. All said, Kublai’s love of and respect for the Chinese way of life may have defined him best of all, for better and worse. Kublai’s interests and energies were absorbed by China to the exclusion of the Mongol homeland, and his reign isolated the Mongols in China. So with the collapse of Kublai’s dynasty, the last of the Mongol Empire, the Mongols withdrew and never again played a role of any great historical importance.


    Lewis, Archibald Ross. “Nomads and Crusaders, A.D. 1000-1368.” Indiana University Press, c1988.
    Elverskog, Johan. “Our Great Qing: The Monogls, Buddhism and the State in late Imperial China.”
    Kapstein, Matthew T. “The Tibetans.”
    Rossabi, Morris. “Khubilai Khan: His Life and Times.”

Entry by Megan H. Chan, 1/29/07